"Julie is my favorite."
"Miss April, I love you."
--Just a taste of what I heard on my first visit to Allison Thompson's first grade class at Eastside Elementary in Cabot, AR. I will make two more visits in preparation for writing a Pre-K-1st grade *Choosing Sides*--a series of interactive, age-specific plays that explore bullying. This project is an on-going collaboration between Pulaski Technical College and SafePlaces with funding through the Arkansas Arts Council. Even with only one visit, I see that issues around bullying at the pre-K level are both different and very much the same from issues around bullying at the middle school level.
On my initial visit, I spent about 15 minutes observing the students. They were free-drawing on individual eraser boards. I heard multiple students repeating: "I'm the judge." When I asked Ms. Thompson about this, she said the students were referring to the judge of their artistic works. "Did they come up with this on their own?, " I asked. She nodded yes and explained they are very competitive.
I also noticed the idea of favor at play--being in each other's favor and in the authority figure's favor. One student drew a picture declaring her favoritism for another student...who just happened to be the designated "judge." And, of course, there were a few students who drew pictures for me. At an earlier time in my career, I would have been flattered. Now, I feel more concerned that we may inadvertently train our children to create their idea of what WE want to see as opposed to using their free drawing time to create their own story on the canvas.
I then facilitated the students in a conversation about bullying--What is a bully? What is a friend? What can your friend say to make you really happy? What can a friend say to make you really sad? I forget how hurtful children this age can be--how they sometimes wield the aforementioned idea of favor to achieve power. I was also struck by their idea of what a bully looks like in the role-on-the-wall exercise. In role-on-the wall, you draw an outline of the character--in this case a bully. Then you ask the students what the character looks like and write that on the outside; what they feel like and write that on the inside. Admittedly, the students had a hard time with this rather abstract exercise. However, it was interesting to hear that the bully wears black and has lots of skulls on his/her clothing...especially after their discussion of how their own friends can hurt them. They don't seem to realize that their friends can also be bullies because bullying is about behavior.
This initial visit definitely reminded me of my work in Ms. Bell's class at Horace Mann Middle School in Little Rock. Middle school students also wield favor for power. Of course, in middle school, you begin to see the seeds of dating violence. At the first grade level, it is truly about friendship. I return to Cabot today with a drawing exercise in which students will draw a picture of a time when they have been bullied. I will then look for similarities to identify common ways of bullying to include in Choosing Sides.